Legislation & Litigation

Uncovering the Case Process: Plaintiffs Need Reasonable, Not Friendly, Courts

Written By:
May 04, 2012
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Written By: Karen Marshall,
May 4, 2012

When it comes to lawsuits, California is often considered a plaintiff-friendly state. In fact, it currently ranks second on the American Tort Reform Foundation’s list of “judicial hellholes” for defendants. But what happened to John Johnson, a marine veteran and mesothelioma lawsuit plaintiff, can hardly be considered friendly.

John Johnson’s Story

Mr. Johnson developed malignant mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure. He sued several companies that were allegedly responsible for his asbestos exposure and injuries. An LA Times article, suggests these defendants may have compromised his health further by putting him through a demanding deposition schedule.

Although, Mr. Johnson’s doctors told the Los Angeles Superior Court that he could only withstand 12 hours of depositions spread over a few weeks, the judge reportedly allowed the defendants to depose him for 25 hours. Mr. Johnson apparently postponed hospital care so that he could attend the depositions.

When he appeared for the final deposition in January, he barely had enough breath to answer questions. He collapsed within a few minutes and had to be hospitalized. He died at the hospital the next day.

How Could a Plaintiff-Friendly Court Let This Happen?

It’s not very useful to measure justice in terms of friendliness. Courts are designed to be impartial. They are concerned with procedural rules and legal standards. Most time on a case is spent trading papers on these rules and standards. Most cases are won, lost or pushed into settlement as a result of words that are put on these papers and placed in front of a judge.

Although a case can last many years, there are only a few opportunities for real human interaction. They’re usually in the deposition room or the courtroom. Judges are too busy to sit through depositions, so the lawyers and parties are left to police themselves. That may make it easier to imagine how things got out of hand during Mr. Johnson’s deposition.

But still, this shouldn’t have happened.

Mr. Johnson Deserved Better

I’m a former defense attorney (although not for asbestos defendants). So I know some of the strategies defendants use. But dragging out a case in hopes that the plaintiff will die soon is just wrong. That’s exactly what some believe happened in Mr. Johnson’s case.

I wasn’t there, so I may not have enough facts to second guess the attorneys or the judge. But it’s worth noting that most courts have adopted, or are at least considering, rules to avoid the type of abuse Mr. Johnson suffered.

For instance:

  • Courts may be strict, but they do make reasonable exceptions to their rules. I’m not familiar with L.A.’s rules, but being physically unable to give a deposition sounds like a legitimate reason to allow more deposition time, or at least postpone it.
  • Court rules usually allow defendants to ask questions in writing. Assuming this was an option in L.A., why did Mr. Johnson have to sit in a room filled with dozens of lawyers? Maybe submitting written questions did inconvenience the defense team. But surely giving a deposition when he could barely breathe severely burdened Mr. Johnson.
  • At a minimum, court rules should have allowed the parties to hold the deposition in the plaintiff’s home or hospital room. I don’t see why he had to sacrifice medical care for a deposition.

The jurisdiction didn’t have to be friendly or unfriendly to exercise any of these options. Just reasonable. And what happened to Mr. Johnson sounds unreasonable to me. Wouldn’t you agree?

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